Tiger Woods beats himself up for exactly 30 footsteps down the fairway following a bad shot. At the 31st step, he forces a radical inner shift to positive thinking so that his self-criticism doesn’t ruin the next shot, and the next shot, and the one after that — possibly damaging the rest of his round. He strikes a balance between his inextricably high standards — the ones that are responsible for his greatness — and a potentially brutal inner self-talk that risks undermining him.
This example is good to share with high-achieving individuals recently promoted into leadership positions, who are often caught in what’s called the “high performer’s paradox.” This paradox can occur in the transition from middle management into senior leadership or from individual contribution into management.
What Is the High Performer’s Paradox?
To perform at their peak, high performers use an internal motivation system that pushes them beyond their limits to deliver great results. This internal dialogue often takes the form of intense self-criticism. They set high standards, which they rarely meet, causing them to feel behind, for which they then chastise themselves internally.
This chastisement drives them to push harder, further and better — and it works. These high achievers do outstanding work, usually outperforming others, as a result of this internal motivation system. Because of their outstanding performance, they receive promotions.
However, the inner motivation system that drove great results with “deliverables” or content-related work causes a litany of unsuccessful behaviors when fulfilling leadership functions. This phenomenon results from the leaders’ coping with their harsh inner critics, managing feelings of panic and inadequacy as they worry that they’ll look bad in front of their colleagues.
Timothy Gallwey wrote about this problem in his book “The Inner Game of Tennis,” explaining that the conversations top athletes have internally have a tremendous impact on their performances. This inner dialogue must be productive and balanced, or the athletes sabotage their own games.
How the High Performer’s Paradox Cripples Leadership
When the high performer’s paradox is in play, new leaders may overcompensate for their feelings of worry and inadequacy in the following ways:
- Coming across as too strong, too aggressive or too arrogant.
- Being too controlling in meetings or group processes.
- Blaming others for their own mistakes and throwing people under the bus.
- Belittling other people.
- Being ungenerous with praise, recognition and appreciation of others’ contributions.
- Giving overly harsh feedback to, and being too critical of, others.
Alternatively, new leaders may “undercompensate,” or retreat, due to their feeling inadequate and coping with a challenging inner dialogue. They may display the following behaviors:
- Clamming up, withdrawing and disengaging in group settings.
- Demonstrating less confidence and credibility.
- Planning their next statement while others speak, rather than listening closely.
- Avoiding stretch assignments.
- Not taking risks, being creative or challenging the status quo.
- Misreading political situations due to their underestimating their own personal power and impact relative to others. An inaccurate perception of organizational politics and their position within it inhibits their ability to respond appropriately, creating distorted responses.
How to Mitigate the High Performer’s Paradox
If you’re a high achiever and find yourself caught in an inner dialogue that worked for you at a lower level in the organization but is now inhibiting your success as a leader, here are some strategies to use:
Diagnose Extreme Self-criticism
Pay close attention to your inner dialogue. Do you chastise yourself, berate yourself or feel like a failure after making mistakes? If so, you’re probably in the overly self-critical zone. More than likely, this behavior leaks into your leadership. It can sometimes take someone else, such as a coach or a mentor, to help you recognize extreme self-criticism. If you rate yourself much lower than others do in a 360-degree assessment, it’s also a good indication that you are too self-critical.
Address the Root Cause of Your Self-criticism
Were you raised by an overly critical adult? Were you treated poorly by your older siblings or bullied by your peers? Did you have a harsh experience with a teacher in your early life?
These experiences can shape your inner dialogue. Understanding them and coming to peace with them will make a huge difference. Talking with a trusted friend, partner, coach or therapist will help you achieve that peace.
“Right-size” Your Inner Critic
Imagine how you might react to your mistakes if you were half as self-critical. Try using that mindset for a few days and see if you notice any difference. Then, consciously and diligently manage your inner dialogue to maintain high standards without extreme self-criticism. Adopting an attitude of compassionate self-inquiry helps. Most importantly, don’t criticize yourself for being too self-critical.
Grow Comfortable With the Inevitability of Mistakes
Mistakes are guaranteed in leadership. Perfect leaders and hero leaders don’t exist. Good leaders know they’ll make mistakes and can recover from them. Accepting your imperfections and vulnerabilities makes you an even better leader.
Most humans have some harsh inner critics to manage. Follow these tips, and go easy on yourself as you work toward a more balanced inner dialogue.